“They call the people of Arras rats,” said my guide as we walked the limestone boves under the city, “It’s because we have these tunnels underground.” I had come to Arras to learn more about the World War One site and the battle but was enthralled to discover the medieval caves in the old town.
Arras was built on limestone and centuries ago quarrying for stone resulted in caves and tunnels underneath the city. This was a network of underground caverns used in medieval times for storing food and wines from the markets. During wartime the boves were used as a shelter for the local citizens. I walked through the medieval boves, where water still dripped and where markings on the walls indicated a previous life. Some of it felt quite eerie but there were centuries of history here. But the most famous use of these caves was yet to come.
The cave network really lay forgotten for years until 1915 when Arras was at the centre of fierce fighting in World War One. The British Army planned an assault on the Germans and decided to use the caves to hide troops. New Zealand Army tunnelers were brought in to excavate a large tunnel network, now known as the Wellington Quarry. They were joined by the Bantams, a regiment from the Yorkshire area made of small men too short for the regular army. The New Zealanders were known as “lemon squeezers” because of the shape of their hats.
Descending the lift at the Wellington Quarry felt like travelling back in time one hundred years. Like the Boves these tunnels had also been used for centuries but fell into disuse during the 19th century and were largely forgotten until World War One. The tunnelers and engineers worked for months on carving out space, networks of tunnels and even had a small underground hospital at one stage. Everything was in preparation for the Battle of Arras which was on the 9th April 2016.
Black signs pointed to the latrines with each tunnel named with a code. I had an audiovisual guide which told the story of the caves as I was guided to each section. Poignant scenes of men resting and drinking were displayed on screens. This was where they lived and worked for months. At Tunnel 5E the scene of a church service with men singing Fight the Good Fight was very moving and emotional. This depicted the night before battle which was an Easter Sunday. The men gathered for a service and communion which was sketched by one of the soldiers and the very drawing was depicted on the wall. Further on there were drawings of people including a girl on the wall, and remarkably well preserved. Who was she?
The final stop was at entrance 10 where stone steps led to the outside. This is where men waited for the signal to rush into battle. Here, the poet Edward Thomas waited, writing. He was killed on the first day of the Battle of Arras. The tour had built into a dramatic crescendo but this final stop was perhaps the most moving of all. Standing in the darkness one can only imagine what it must have been like in 1916 and knowing that some would not return.
Back in daylight and 2016 this was one of the most remarkable and atmospheric museums and battle sites I have ever visited.